Indigo and cabbage

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In the first comment to this post on a Northeastern topolectal word for kohlrabi, "piě-le 丿了" (cf. MSM piělán 苤蓝), Jenny Chu astutely asked whether the second syllable is related to the Chinese word for the color blue, lán 藍 (also "indigo", for which see below).

That sent me scurrying, since — although I was vaguely aware of a secondary meaning besides "indigo, blue" of "cabbage" for lán 藍 — I could not recall ever hearing any convincing / satisfying explanation for what the relation between these two meanings is.

Some early Chinese authors and commentators do assert that the leaves of cruciferous vegetables (Brassicaceae, colloquially called cole crops in North America) are referred to as lán 藍 due to their color.  However, because of my background knowledge of words for cabbage, kale, etc. in many other languages, I did not find that a satisfying explanation.  So I decided to dig deeper into the mystery of the dual identity of lán 藍:  indigo and cabbage.

I believe that what I came up with will illuminate the conundrum.

If you look under Brassica at the bottom of the Chinese Wikipedia article on piělán 苤蓝 ("kohlrabi"), you will see that, in the rows for B. oleracea and qítā 其他 ("others"), many varieties are called this or that "lán 藍" in Chinese.  That includes the extremely common jièlán / gàilán (Cant. gaai3 laam4) 芥藍 / 芥蓝 ("kailan; Chinese kale"); cf. Persian کلم(kalam, cabbage).  From Middle Persian *kalamb, from Ancient Greek κράμβη (krámbē, “cabbage”).

Cf. Latin caulis ("stalk, stem; stem of a cabbage"):

From Proto-Indo-European *keh₂ulis. Cognate with Sanskrit कुल्या (kulyā), Ancient Greek καυλός (kaulós, stem) and Latvian kauls (bone).


Still more pertinent is the list of Brassica species listed here in Chinese:

  • 白花甘蓝 Brassica oleracea var. albiflora Kuntz.
  • 結球甘藍(Cabbage),包括高麗菜、皺葉甘藍、普通甘藍、紫甘藍
  • 球莖甘藍(Kohlrabi),即苤藍
  • 抱子甘藍(Brussels sprout)。
  • 花椰菜(Cauliflower)。
  • 青花菜(Broccoli)。
  • 羽衣甘藍(Kale),包括菜用及觀賞用。
  • 芥藍(Chinese kale)。

It is apparent that the canonical form of the genus term is gānlán 甘藍 (Middle Sinitic kamlam).

Attestation of ganlan 甘藍:

The word was recorded in the late-11th-century book on medicinal plants 證類本草 by Tang Shenwei, quoting from the 9th-century book 《食醫心鏡》, now lost.

What this boils down to is that there is no cognate or semantic relationship between lán 藍 meaning "blue; indigo" and lán 藍 meaning "Brassica; kale".  The former (I.) may be derived from a Proto-Sino-Tibetan root:


From Proto-Sino-Tibetan *g-ram (indigo); cognate with Lepcha (ryom), Mru (charam), Tibetan རམས (rams, indigo) (STEDT; Schuessler, 2007; Hill, 2019). However, Laufer (1916) considers the Tibetan word to be borrowed from Chinese.

Schuessler (2007) considers this an areal word, possibly from Southeast Asia; cf. Proto-Malayo-Polynesian *taʀum (indigo plant and dye) (> Malay tarum).


Sino-Xenic () — from Sinitic to other East Asian languages:


(Wiktionary — with some slight modifications)

The latter (II.) appears to have been borrowed from a Persian < Greek word, with descendants in many Iranian and Turkish languages:



So far as I know this post is the first place where the true nature of this bifurcation of lán 藍 ("indigo, blue") + Brassica" has been pointed out.


Selected reading

This study describes the analysis of dyes from three textile specimens associated with human remains found in the Chehrabad salt mine in northwestern Iran dating to 2000 ± 400 years BP. They are unique for this part of the world not only because of their age, but because they represent textiles used by common people (salt miners) as opposed to funerary garments of the wealthy. Samples of yarns from these specimens were extracted and analyzed by high performance liquid chromatography with diode array and mass spectrometric detection. The red dye was obtained from madder (specifically Rubia tinctorum L.), and the blue was from an indigo plant, probably woad (Isatis tinctoria L.), both of which are known in Iran.

Wouldn't you know, woad is a a flowering plant in the family Brassicaceae!


  1. KeithB said,

    November 22, 2023 @ 11:52 am

    *Everything* is in Brassicaceae!

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 22, 2023 @ 11:56 am

    Ah excellent. It seems possible though that the original form of the borrowing into Chinese was something like k(ə)ram — this would closely resemble 'indigo' and also make a better match for Greek/Persian. Kamlam 甘藍 would then represent a rewriting / subsequent development. At some point I had collected a few items like this, where "sesquisyllabic"-type words A-BV(C) get (re-)written in the form AV(C)-BV(C)…

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2023 @ 4:05 pm

    I enthusiastically concur that the original form of the borrowing into Chinese was likely to have been something like k(ə)ram. Your reasoning for that supposition is impeccable.

  4. Not a naive speaker said,

    November 22, 2023 @ 5:04 pm

    Maybe you should look at Blaukraut which is is one of the the German Names of Brassica oleracea convar. capitata var. rubra L.

    The literal translation of Blaukrautis blue cabbage

  5. Jenny Chu said,

    November 22, 2023 @ 8:28 pm

    @Not a Naive Speaker I sense a new post coming soon…

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2023 @ 10:32 pm

    @Jenny Chu

    No need for a new post.

    What with your good initial comment to the Brassica oleracea Gongylodes Group post, plus the whole of this post and all of its accompanying comments, everything essential has already been said.

    We've now come full circle, such that the wound between blue and cabbage has been healed. Philosophically and philologically, we have helped the master chemist conclude his decades long "search for blue".

  7. Jenny Chu said,

    November 23, 2023 @ 1:25 am

    I am still feeling honored that my innocent question sent Prof. Mair "scurrying"!

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 23, 2023 @ 7:31 am

    You made my Thanksgiving, Jenny!

    May you and all Language Log readers have a bountiful, joyful day of feasting and resting too.

    Kinrō Kansha no Hi 勤労感謝の日 (Labor Thanksgiving Day)!

    Erntedankfest (The Harvest Thanksgiving Festival)



    To whom / what are we giving thanks?

    Does there necessarily have to be an object / recipient of our Thanksgiving?

    May it not just be a feeling / attitude?

  9. David Marjanović said,

    November 23, 2023 @ 7:57 am

    Nice finds!

    Cognate with Sanskrit कुल्या (kulyā)

    I can't see how that's possible; I'd expect **ko- or at least **kh-.

    Erntedankfest (The Harvest Thanksgiving Festival)

    That's the last Sunday in October; people traditionally bring food into their church to have it blessed.

    Does there necessarily have to be an object / recipient of our Thanksgiving?

    If there's not, it's happiness, not thanksgiving…

  10. David Marjanović said,

    November 23, 2023 @ 7:59 am

    I'd expect

    …or **kū-

  11. chris Button said,

    November 23, 2023 @ 8:06 am

    Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate!

    I thought I might add a little supporting note on "kəram". The idea of a presyllable of sorts in the sound represented by 藍 works well since we need to account for why the sound it represents in Middle Chinese directly reflects only OC r- rather than a velar cluster with -r- as in thr Tai forms for example.

  12. katarina said,

    November 24, 2023 @ 4:26 pm

    Finally can understand why GAILAN 芥藍 (often translated "Chinese broccoli") has the character 藍 lan "blue". Thank you for another tour de force disquisition, Professsor Mair !

  13. Nancy Mandel said,

    November 27, 2023 @ 10:40 am

    You can make a blue or blue-purple dye with red cabbage; an ancient technique.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    November 27, 2023 @ 11:30 am

    Please explain how that works or give a reference.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    November 27, 2023 @ 12:22 pm

    Not speaking for Nancy (of course) but how about ?

  16. Nancy Mandel said,

    November 28, 2023 @ 9:12 am

    Thanks, Philip. That recipe is for food coloring, but you can use cabbage dye for fabric; basically, steep or seethe the chopped leaves in water. You can affect the color across the red-purple-blue range by changing the alkalinity and you can mordant the cloth to better fix the color. Here is a recipe from another site:

  17. Chris Button said,

    November 28, 2023 @ 3:45 pm

    And so perhaps etymologies I and II may be combined? That's to say cabbage was loaned and words for indigo then spun off from it?

  18. KIRINPUTRA said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 9:01 am

    This is great!

    Never looked into it before, but the Thai word is คะน้า, via Teochew KHAH-NÂᴺ. (Not sure if I have this exactly right.) Taioanese & Hokkien cognate is KEH-NÂ. The back syllables alone testify to antiquity….

    A related word (that I've never heard) is กะหล่ำ. Wiktionary says it's "[b]orrowed from Hainanese 芥藍/芥蓝 (gai6 lam2) or from Classical Persian کلم‎ (kalam)" (!).

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